Codebreaker, Chess Grandmaster and Corkman


In September 1939, Hugh Alexander was in Buenos Aires attending the Chess Olympiad when World War II broke out. Six rounds into the tournament, the reigning British champion immediately withdrew from competition and returned to London by boat. A mathematics teacher by profession, he volunteered for national service, and was quickly assigned to the elite code-breaking unit at Bletchley Park. At the conclusion of the war in 1945, Winston Churchill would credit four cryptographers there with shortening the duration of the conflict by two whole years. Alexander was one of that quartet.

Conel Hugh O’Donnell Alexander, to give him his rather distinctive full name, was born in Cork on April 19th, 1909. His father was a professor of engineering at UCC, and the family lived on Connaught Avenue across from the college. They moved to England when he was eight years old but Alexander would always tell people he regarded himself first and foremost as an Irishman. Even if his decision to embark on a career in the higher echelons of British intelligence meant he could never hope to properly fulfill his talent on the chess board, there seems little enough argument he was the finest player to whom Ireland could ever lay claim.

While his name has always resonated within the Irish chess community, it’s about to be recognised on a far wider scale. The release of “The Imitation Game”, a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the code-breaker and pioneer of modern computing, sees Matthew Goode portraying Alexander. When Turing was on trial for homosexuality in 1952, a lot of his friends and colleagues deserted him. Not Alexander. He went to court to testify as a character witness. A measure of the man he was.

“I have many times had the pleasure of meeting Alexander over the chess board,” wrote Mikhail Botvinnik, whose reign as world champion lasted 14 years. “On one occasion (in 1946) I suffered a crushing defeat. He was a real paladin, sans peur et sans reproche…With his urge for overcoming and taming opposition, with his enthusiasm for uncompromising struggle, Alexander pioneered the way for British players to modern, complicated and daring chess; chess players will never forget him.”

Although he attained the level of international master in 1950, Alexander’s peculiar choice of job precluded him from competing with enough regularity against the greats like Botvinnik. In the decades after World War II, the British government would never allow him travel anywhere behind the Iron Curtain to compete against his most illustrious contemporaries. London was riddled with Russian spies at the time, and it was feared that if Moscow got wind of the presence of such an important Cold War code-breaker on their territory, he would be either killed or imprisoned.

Befitting somebody who followed up a prodigious schoolboy career by winning the prestigious Cambridge University chess championships four years running, Alexander still found enough opportunities to leave an indelible mark on the sport. In 1953, he defeated the Russian grandmaster David Bornstein in an epic contest at Hastings that lasted 13 hours and took three days to complete. Alexander’s dogged triumph over the higher-rated opponent garnered front-page headlines in the English papers, made him a household name, and led to his taking on the job of chess columnist at The Sunday Times in London.

“Alexander could well be described as the greater Irish player of all time,” wrote Enda Rohan in a contribution to Mark Orr’s excellent Irish chess archive. “He wrote to me in 1957 saying: ‘I do think of myself as an Irishman, not an Englishman, in spite of my long time here.’ We had many friendly arguments during the 1957 Dublin Zonal (a world championship qualifying event) where there was great local interest in his performance, though officially he was representing England.”

In many ways, Alexander was a man with a foot in both camps. For the duration of the war, he billeted his Australian wife Enid and their kids in Donegal while he got on with the job of cracking German code for the Allies. Given an OBE in 1945 for his success in that regard, he was promoted to CBE ten years later. More honours were to follow. Shortly before his retirement from the intelligence corps, he was made a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George – an individual award conferred by the Queen in recognition of his unique contribution to the nation.

“I think the best way for the player to begin to understand and enjoy problems is through using the chess skill he already possesses to solve them simply as chess puzzles,” wrote Alexander once, explaining his philosophical approach to the game. “While it is the struggle in a game of chess that is the central element, most players get pleasure from the ideas that occur in a game and not just from winning; so, although at first some may find problems rather bloodless ,there are few who will not grow to enjoy them.”

When he retired, the American government tried desperately to lure Alexander across the Atlantic to bring his vast experience of code-breaking to bear in the Pentagon. A lucrative offer was turned down in favour of devoting more time to writing books about chess and promoting the sport. Unfortunately, he became seriously ill just a few months into this new vocation and died on February 15th, 1974.

“I am not going to recite his triumphs at chess or try to describe his immense services to British chess over forty years,” wrote Stuart Milner-Barry, a close friend of his, in the book, “The Best Games of CHO’D Alexander”. “Nor would I be the right person to describe his work at GCHQ since the War. But I would like to say something about him as a colleague and a friend. He had a fully, happy and successful life, left behind a famous name, and memories that will always be treasured by his friends of all ages.”

Quite a name. Quite a life too.